There are nearly 3X more weather-related disasters today than 40 years ago

car dash rain on windshield

Many states are feeling the pressure from new and changing risks in their area.

In recent years, the U.S. has been rocked by some of the most violent weather-related disasters in its history:

  • In 2019, a historic tornado outbreak unleashed 55 twisters in one day across eight states.

  • The 2018 the California Camp Fire was the deadliest wildfire in the state's history, destroying more than 135,000 acres of land and nearly 19,000 structures.

  • In 2017, hurricanes Maria, Irma, and Harvey ripped through Puerto Rico and the southern U.S., becoming three of the five most expensive hurricanes ever.

These record-setting events are not just isolated examples: Over the past 40 years, weather-related disasters have become more frequent, more expensive, and have been taking place in new locations at unexpected times. As a result, people everywhere need to be prepared for the changing risks.

Esurance helps people recover after disasters, but we're also committed to helping people prepare for weather-related disasters before they strike and thereby minimizing their impact. To this end, we dug into disaster data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to see how weather disasters have changed since 1980 and what Americans can learn from these new trends.

How are disasters determined?

According to FEMA guidelines, when a major weather event occurs in a state, the governor or chief can appeal to the U.S. president to make an official disaster declaration. Then, federal funds and support can be released to help the state with its disaster response.

Although official disaster declarations can be made in the aftermath of man-made disasters like chemical spills or terrorist attacks, we've limited our focus to the frequency of weather-related disasters:

  • Severe storms
  • Fires
  • Floods
  • Hurricanes (or typhoons)
  • Severe snow/ice storms (or freezing)
  • Droughts
  • Tornadoes
  • Coastal storms (or tsunamis)

Weather disasters are growing in frequency

Since 1980, the number of weather-related disasters has fluctuated and increased considerably. In 2018, there were 2.7X more weather disasters than in 1980. The variance in frequency year over year reminds us how unpredictable weather events can be. However, we see a shocking spike between 2000 and 2011. In fact, 2011 had more disasters than any other year examined.

annual weather disasters graphic annual weather disasters graphic

The 2011 spike was due in part to a potent mix of atmospheric conditions that sent hundreds of tornadoes swirling across 15 states. Although "tornado alley" residents know to be on guard in the summer months, tornadoes are still some of the most unpredictable disasters Americans face. Given the back-to-back strikes that year, many states weren't prepared for that level of activity. One of the most disastrous tornadoes in U.S. history occurred in 2011, in Joplin, Missouri, where winds swirled upward of 200 miles per hour and left over 161 people dead.

Another example of an unpredictable year of disaster: 2012 and Hurricane Sandy. Sweeping across much of the East Coast, this disaster caused at least $70 billion in damage. Experts say Sandy caused such severe damage due to its superstorm classification as well as the area's lack of preparation for or experience with storms of this nature.

Understanding that extreme weather can strike anytime and anywhere, it's important that you're always prepared. That starts with making a disaster plan with your family, and making sure you stock your emergency kit well in advance of any storm.

Are disasters causing more damage in the U.S.?

We can't deny the data. The economic impact of extreme weather events is on the rise. With each passing decade, the total number of billion-dollar weather-related disasters has continued to increase, nearly doubling between the '80s and '90s, and then again between 2000 and the 2010s.

decades of disaster graphic decades of disaster graphic

According to the International Monetary Fund, this trend is not likely to change: They predict climate change will only exacerbate the frequency and intensity of extreme weather.

In 2018, extreme weather events cost the U.S. $91 billion: It was the fourth-most expensive year since 1980 but accounted for only a fraction of this decade's $755 billion burden.

The types of weather-related disasters becoming more frequent

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While the number of days between weather-related disasters has fluctuated somewhat since the 1980s, the gaps have steadily closed. In the 1980s, an average of more than two weeks separated each of America's weather disasters. However, in the 2010s, there was only a week between weather-related disasters on average across the country.

According to FEMA data, severe storms and fires were the most frequently occurring disasters in America between 2010 and 2018. More than 100 severe storms have cost the U.S. over $1 billion each since the 1980s — totaling $226.9 billion in damages.

Fires saw the highest increase in frequency since the 80s. Their paths of destruction are also getting larger. In 2018, more than 58,000 wildfires in the U.S. burned 8.8 million acres. The number of large fires (burning over 1,000 acres) increased more than 500% between the late '70s and the decade leading up to 2012.

Not only are the periods between some weather events getting shorter, but the risk of "cascading" disasters is also increasing. Weather disasters are considered cascading when they seem to trigger destructive chain reactions, such as hurricanes leading to floods or droughts leading to wildfires. Experts say these coupled weather events are occurring more frequently as the Earth's average temperature rises.

As the threat of larger, more frequent, and more destructive disasters grows each year, let's look at the weather events that are most likely to happen near your home. Awareness of your risks, along with good preparation, can go a long way in helping make sure your home and family stay safe regardless of what comes your way.

The changing disaster trends in your state

most frequent disasters each state graphic most frequent disasters each state graphic

On the whole, the U.S. has experienced shifts in the most frequent disasters. In the 1980s, very few states recorded fires as the most prominent weather-related disaster, but significant parts of the map became increasingly mint over time.

Our map presents a regional divide: In Western states, fires have become one of the greatest threats in more recent years, while the Northeast and Midwest shifted from flooding to severe storms. This pattern reflects the conditions in each region.

Out west, drought and high temperatures helped set the stage for frequent wildfires. Farther east, severe storms can produce harsh rains or icy blizzards depending on the season.

Floridians might be surprised to learn that hurricanes have only recently become the top disaster, after decades of fires and freezes. Fires remain a danger in the state, though. In the first six months of 2019, there were 958 wildfires in Florida, although most did not destroy enough to be considered disasters.

Whether you live in Oregon, Maine or Michigan, check out our disaster prep guides to learn how to prep for and recover from natural disasters.

The most dangerous months for disasters in your state

Now that you know what disasters your state is at risk for, it also helps to know when you are most at risk of experiencing them.

most dangrous season each state graphic most dangrous season each state graphic

Between 1980 and 2018, the most disaster-prone months for most states were in the summer and fall. However, when we look into each decade's most dangerous month, we see they have also changed over time.

In the 1980s, states experienced the highest number of disasters in May, June, and September. In the 2010s, the top months were June, August, and October. This shows a gradual shift in the later summer and fall compared to prior years.

How to prepare for wild weather

Our analysis shows that disasters are worse and more frequent now than in decades prior. With this increase in risk and severity, it's important to stay informed of the risk in your area and to always be prepared.

No matter what kind of home you own or rent, making a disaster plan is an essential step in getting smart about safety. Many people lack staples such as food, water, and first-aid kits, and most aren't aware of disaster procedures in their local area. By gathering supplies, making a plan, and understanding your risks, you can prepare for weather-related disasters to the greatest extent possible.

Another way to be prepared? Make sure your home and car insurance policies are up to snuff. Part of this is taking regular inventory of your home, as well as reviewing what property is included on your policies. It's generally a good idea to include comprehensive coverage on your car policy, and make sure your home insurance is fully up to date and includes any additions or remodeling you've completed.

Esurance makes understanding your coverages surprisingly painless with great tools like Coverage Counselor® and our home insurance calculator. Both help you understand how much coverage is right for you — so you can rest a little easier knowing you're protected. No matter what Mother Nature sends your way.

Don't just expect the unexpected — prepare for the unexpected with Esurance.

Methodology

We analyzed a list of all official FEMA Disaster Declarations from 1980 to 2018 as reported in FEMA's National Emergency Management Information System (NEMIS). For this analysis, we only included weather-related disasters: fires, floods, hurricanes (or typhoons), freezing or snow/ice storms, severe storms, tornadoes, coastal storms or tsunamis, and droughts.

We then calculated the number of days between each disaster incident date and compared the averages by disaster type, state, and month. In cases in which the state had a tie for the most frequent disaster month, ties are indicated with stripes or asterisks. Due to the nature of the data and our use, this report did not require statistical testing and the findings were purely exploratory. For more information on these methods, please visit the FEMA Disaster Declarations page.

Fair use statement

The first step in staying safe in a disaster is preparation, so please share this with your friends and family. We do ask that you share our work only for noncommercial purposes. Also, please link back to this page whenever you share our study so that others can explore all our data and all of our writers get due credit.

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Or call 1-800-378-7262.